He's a former executive from one of the largest IT firms in the world, and now he has one of the most crucial CIO jobs in the public sector. His boss, the head of one of the Western world's oldest and most important democracies, hopes his private-sector know-how and professionalism will rub off on the bureaucracies he is charged with running.

Most would assume we're talking about Mark Forman, the first e-government czar in the Bush administration, but the man in question is Ian Watmore, who since September 2004, has been the first CIO ever for the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Tony Blair officially named Watmore as such on May 25, 2004, to head the new e-Government Unit, which replaced the four-year-old Office of the e-Envoy. That office, under the direction of Andrew Pindar, was created to put the UK government online.

With that effort considered successfully completed, the door opened for a more strategic decision-making role to bolster government transformation using IT, Watmore explained during an interview in Washington, D.C. In town in June to meet with his American counterpart -- Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT -- and before heading to Ottawa to confer with Canada's acting CIO, Helen McDonald, Watmore added that he, like his North American colleagues, has been tasked with formulating IT policies and strategies which are governmentwide in scope, extract efficiencies through greater consolidation of IT services and align with government reforms.

But for Watmore, there's an even more fundamental task at hand. "The first thing I'm trying to do is get the term CIO properly understood," he said. "My position is helping board level executives make strategic decisions. I want to get the concept of the CIO established in the UK government. In some areas it's understood. In other areas, they are coming to realize the importance of the position."

Spending Big on IT

Watmore, 50, is quiet but confident, and was chief of operations for Accenture UK prior to his government appointment. Although his career has been in the private sector, he worked on government IT projects for nearly eight years, learning how the British public sector deployed and managed IT. The lessons he learned will go far as he assumes the responsibilities of one of the most IT-intensive public sectors in the world.

The UK government invests more in technology than any other European country, according to Kable, a British research firm. This year, the UK public sector will spend approximately $25.5 billion on IT, most of which will go toward e-government applications and back office infrastructure. The UK also spends far more on consulting and outsourcing -- 37 percent -- than does the rest of Europe -- 16 percent.

At first glance, the UK appears to have invested wisely, especially in terms of e-government. Accenture's global surveys of e-government have consistently put Britain in the top five. But as Watmore points out, his country's high scores have to do with the breadth of e-government services. "We score less well on depth," he said. The UK has some successful transactional services, such as online tax filings, which are now at a 20 percent adoption rate, and Londoners who have to pay the famous traffic congestion fee can also do so online.

To boost online service capabilities, the national government has launched DirectGov, which Watmore describes as a destination site for public-sector services, compared to America's federal government's FirstGov.gov, which acts more as a portal. DirectGov, which has received more than 1 million visitors since its launch in 2004, is based on what Watmore calls a franchise model, with self-services grouped around citizen needs, not government programs. But critics say far more must be done to encourage adoption.

Watmore acknowledges the problem and is focusing efforts on moving beyond critical mass to having a majority of citizens use certain transactions as they are deployed. "We need more of the hardcore transactions online and to make them as good as the ones now available in the private sector," he said.

Back Office Effectiveness

While e-government garners a lot of publicity in the UK (the mainstream media in Britain covers the government's IT initiatives on a regular basis), Watmore knows that the true value of IT lies with the success of its back office functions and infrastructure. Right now, the UK, like other governments, is saddled with too many redundant and often incompatible systems that operate vertically within departments rather than horizontally across the enterprise. The remedy is to consolidate, but the goal shouldn't be just saving money, according to Watmore.

"We're not just trying to take cost out of those functions. We want to improve the effectiveness of those functions," he explained. The goal is to expand the amount of shared services in government. For that to succeed, Watmore realizes that the UK government will have to reduce the number of vendors and software products it uses. "That means we need to stop customizing software to fit our practice, and instead change our process to work with the software package."

Increasing shared services also means reducing the number of vertical applications within agencies, and increasing the number of horizontal, back office services. So far, the UK is behind in this area, according to The Financial Times, which cited how the Dutch government has decided that all personnel work will be done by one organization across 12 different agencies. France has implemented similar reforms to its accounting systems, and the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, has outsourced its human resources and payroll services.

In the UK, however, the Blair government was still struggling with how to deploy shared services, according to the article. The problems cited by The Financial Times, however, existed before Watmore took over as CIO.

To improve overall effectiveness, Watmore said he wants to focus on two key areas. First, he aims to improve the skill sets of those workers who are in government. The UK's heavy investment in outsourcing and consulting has neglected those who work in the public sector, leaving them with jobs but no careers, he said. "As a result, we don't have the best skills or capabilities to work with the private sector to achieve what we want to achieve," he added. Along with skills improvement, Watmore wants to see government do a better job when it comes to collaborating with the private sector. "We have a tendency to swing back and forth between extreme collaboration or not at all," he added.

Second, Watmore wants to reach out to Britain's 1,300 local government organizations to form closer ties with jurisdictions that are equivalent to U.S. city and county governments. "Everybody recognizes that the majority of services are delivered locally," he said. "Local governments have done a number of very successful things recently."

Watmore has invited representatives from three local governments to sit on his newly created CIO Council, which consists of 30 government IT executives who are responsible for drafting public-sector IT strategies that align with the UK government's business needs. So far, the initial response seems to be positive. "They -- the local representatives -- said to me the other day that for the first time in a long time they feel like they are being listened to," Watmore said.

Interestingly, local governments receive much of their IT funding from the national government, but Watmore's authority over how that money gets spent is rather weak, he said. "That funding comes through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, not the Office of the e-Government Unit."

Security, Privacy, Accessibility

Ensuring privacy and security is a major issue in the UK, and Blair's administration is taking a very different approach to tackling the problem. On the broad issue of national security, the UK has decided to introduce a national identity card that will rely heavily on IT to identify and authenticate individuals in the fight against crime, terrorism, benefits fraud and illegal immigration. "As you can imagine, that project will have a huge impact on IT and raises big implementation issues," Watmore said. For the plan to work, the government will have to roll out a system that can manage the identities of 60 million people, which no government has done before.

Information security is also a major concern within the UK. "We're a bigger target than the private sector," Watmore said. "Everybody wants to get at our stuff. Yet at the same time, we need to be accessible to our citizens and we want to license our government systems to intermediaries as a way to achieve greater value and efficiencies. Trying to reach a balance between the two positions is really hard."

Inspiring Them

Watmore faces other hurdles as well. Like many of his American counterparts, his role as CIO is limited in terms of oversight. "My role is more about influencing. For now, that's fine," he said. "The real challenge is not telling people what to do, it's to inspire them."

Seeking consensus takes time. And the Blair administration, with a majority in Parliament, will be under pressure to deliver quickly on its promised political reforms, which call for improving the nation's education, transport, health care and battle against crime. Watmore will have his hands full, building consensus and relationships with the various stakeholders if he is to align the government's huge investments in IT with its business needs.

With Watmore's contract running until August 2008, he has time to put his stamp on the UK government's IT program -- but skeptics will be watching, waiting to see how well he does.

So far, he has impressed many with his professionalism, according to the British media. And Watmore, in turn, says he's been impressed with his staff's professionalism. "The people here are fantastic. They are really smart and know how to get things done," he said. "And they know that what they are doing matters to people in their everyday life."

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.